Томас Де Квинси
Thomas De Quincey
Narrative and Miscellaneous Papers — Volume 1
THE HOUSEHOLD WRECK
'To be weak,' we need not the great archangel's voice to tell us, 'is to be miserable.' All weakness is suffering and humiliation, no matter for its mode or its subject. Beyond all other weakness, therefore, and by a sad prerogative, as more miserable than what is most miserable in all, that capital weakness of man which regards the tenure of his enjoyments and his power to protect, even for a moment, the crown of flowers—flowers, at the best, how frail and few! —which sometimes settles upon his haughty brow. There is no end, there never will be an end, of the lamentations which ascend from earth and the rebellious heart of her children, upon this huge opprobrium of human pride—the everlasting mutabilities of all which man can grasp by his power or by his aspirations, the fragility of all which he inherits, and the hollowness visible amid the very raptures of enjoyment to every eye which looks for a moment underneath the draperies of the shadowy present, the hollowness, the blank treachery of hollowness, upon which all the pomps and vanities of life ultimately repose. This trite but unwearying theme, this impassioned common-place of humanity, is the subject in every age of variation without end, from the poet, the rhetorician, the fabulist, the moralist, the divine, and the philosopher. All, amidst the sad vanity of their sighs and groans, labor to put on record and to establish this monotonous complaint, which needs not other record or evidence than those very sighs and groans. What is life? Darkness and formless vacancy for a beginning, or something beyond all beginning—then next a dim lotos of human consciousness, finding itself afloat upon the bosom of waters without a shore—then a few sunny smiles and many tears—a little love and infinite strife—whisperings from paradise and fierce mockeries from the anarchy of chaos—dust and ashes—and once more darkness circling round, as if from the beginning, and in this way rounding or making an island of our fantastic existence,—that is human life; that the inevitable amount of man's laughter and his tears—of what he suffers and he does—of his motions this way and that way—to the right or to the left—backwards or forwards—of all his seeming realities and all his absolute negations—his shadowy pomps and his pompous shadows—of whatsoever he thinks, finds, makes or mars, creates or animates, loves, hates, or in dread hope anticipates;—so it is, so it has been, so it will be, for ever and ever.
Yet in the lowest deep there still yawns a lower deep; and in the vast halls of man's frailty, there are separate and more gloomy chambers of a frailty more exquisite and consummate. We account it frailty that threescore years and ten make the upshot of man's pleasurable existence, and that, far before that time is reached, his beauty and his power have fallen among weeds and forgetfulness. But there is a frailty, by comparison with which this ordinary flux of the human race seems to have a vast duration. Cases there are, and those not rare, in which a single week, a day, an hour sweeps away all vestiges and landmarks of a memorable felicity; in which the ruin travels faster than the flying showers upon the mountain-side, faster 'than a musician scatters sounds;' in which 'it was' and 'it is not' are words of the self-same tongue, in the self-same minute; in which the sun that at noon beheld all sound and prosperous, long before its setting hour looks out upon a total wreck, and sometimes upon the total abolition of any fugitive memorial that there ever had been a vessel to be wrecked, or a wreck to be obliterated.
These cases, though here spoken of rhetorically, are of daily occurrence; and, though they may seem few by comparison with the infinite millions of the species, they are many indeed, if they be reckoned absolutely for themselves; and throughout the limits of a whole nation, not a day passes over us but many families are robbed of their heads, or even swallowed up in ruin themselves, or their course turned out of the sunny beams into a dark wilderness. Shipwrecks and nightly conflagrations are sometimes, and especially among some nations, wholesale calamities; battles yet more so; earthquakes, the famine, the pestilence, though rarer, are visitations yet wider in their desolation. Sickness and commercial ill-luck, if narrower, are more frequent scourges. And most of all, or with most darkness in its train, comes the sickness of the brain—lunacy—which, visiting nearly one thousand in every million, must, in every populous nation, make many ruins in each particular day. 'Babylon in ruins,' says a great author, 'is not so sad a sight as a human soul overthrown by lunacy.' But there is a sadder even than that,—the sight of a family-ruin wrought by crime is even more appalling. Forgery, breaches of trust, embezzlement, of private or public funds—(a crime sadly on the increase since the example of Fauntleroy, and the suggestion of its great feasibility first made by him)—these enormities, followed too often, and countersigned for their final result to the future happiness of families, by the appalling catastrophe of suicide, must naturally, in every wealthy nation, or wherever property and the modes of property are much developed, constitute the vast majority of all that come under the review of public justice. Any of these is sufficient to make shipwreck of all peace and comfort for a family; and often, indeed, it happens that the desolation is accomplished within the course of one revolving sun; often the whole dire catastrophe, together with its total consequences, is both accomplished and made known to those whom it chiefly concerns within one and the same hour. The mighty Juggernaut of social life, moving onwards with its everlasting thunders, pauses not for a moment to spare—to pity—to look aside, but rushes forward for ever, impassive as the marble in the quarry—caring not for whom it destroys, for the how many, or for the results, direct and indirect, whether many or few. The increasing grandeur and magnitude of the social system, the more it multiplies and extends its victims, the more it conceals them; and for the very same reason: just as in the Roman amphitheatres, when they grew to the magnitude of mighty cities, (in some instances accommodating four hundred thousand spectators, in many a fifth part of that amount,) births and deaths became ordinary events, which, in a small modern theatre, are rare and memorable; and exactly as these prodigious accidents multiplied, pari passu, they were disregarded and easily concealed: for curiosity was no longer excited; the sensation attached to them was little or none.
From these terrific tragedies, which, like monsoons or tornadoes, accomplish the work of years in an hour, not merely an impressive lesson is derived, sometimes, perhaps, a warning, but also (and this is of universal application) some consolation. Whatever may have been the misfortunes or the sorrows of a man's life, he is still privileged to regard himself and his friends as amongst the fortunate by comparison, in so far as he has escaped these wholesale storms, either as an actor in producing them, or a contributor to their violence—or even more innocently, (though oftentimes not less miserably)—as a participator in the instant ruin, or in the long arrears of suffering which they entail.
The following story falls within the class of hasty tragedies, and sudden desolations here described. The reader is assured that every incident is strictly true: nothing, in that respect, has been altered; nor, indeed, anywhere except in the conversations, of which, though the results and general outline are known, the separate details have necessarily been lost under the agitating circumstances which produced them. It has been judged right and delicate to conceal the name of the great city, and therefore of the nation in which these events occurred, chiefly out of consideration for the descendants of one person concerned in the narrative: otherwise, it might not have been requisite: for it is proper to mention, that every person directly a party to the case has been long laid in the grave: all of them, with one solitary exception, upwards of fifty years.
* * * * *
It was early spring in the year 17—; the day was the 6th of April; and the weather, which had been of a wintry fierceness for the preceding six or seven weeks—cold indeed beyond anything known for many years, gloomy for ever, and broken by continual storms—was now by a Swedish transformation all at once bright, genial, heavenly. So sudden and so early a prelusion of summer, it was generally feared, could not last. But that only made every body the more eager to lose no hour of an enjoyment that might prove so fleeting. It seemed as if the whole population of the place, a population among the most numerous in Christendom, had been composed of hybernating animals suddenly awakened by the balmy sunshine from their long winter's torpor. Through every hour of the golden morning the streets were resonant with female parties of young and old, the timid and the bold, nay, even of the most delicate valetudinarians, now first tempted to lay aside their wintry clothing together with their fireside habits, whilst the whole rural environs of our vast city, the woodlands, and the interminable meadows began daily to re-echo the glad voices of the young and jovial awaking once again, like the birds and the flowers, and universal nature, to the luxurious happiness of this most delightful season.
Happiness do I say? Yes, happiness; happiness to me above all others. For I also in those days was among the young and the gay; I was healthy; I was strong; I was prosperous in a worldly sense! I owed no man a shilling; feared no man's face; shunned no man's presence. I held a respectable station in society; I was myself, let me venture to say it, respected generally for my personal qualities, apart from any advantages I might draw from fortune or inheritance; I had reason to think myself popular amongst the very slender circle of my acquaintance; and finally, which perhaps was the crowning grace to all these elements of happiness, I suffered not from the presence of ennui, nor ever feared to suffer: for my temperament was constitutionally ardent; I had a powerful animal sensibility; and I knew the one great secret for maintaining its equipoise, viz., by powerful daily exercise; and thus I lived in the light and presence, or, (if I should not be suspected of seeking rhetorical expressions, I would say,) in one eternal solstice of unclouded hope.
These, you will say, were blessings; these were golden elements of felicity. They were so; and yet, with the single exception of my healthy frame and firm animal organization, I feel that I have mentioned hitherto nothing but what by comparison might be thought of a vulgar quality. All the other advantages that I have enumerated, had they been yet wanting, might have been acquired; had they been forfeited, might have been reconquered; had they been even irretrievably lost, might, by a philosophic effort, have been dispensed with; compensations might have been found for any of them, many equivalents, or if not, consolations at least, for their absence. But now it remains to speak of other blessings too mighty to be valued, not merely as transcending in rank and dignity all other constituents of happiness, but for a reason far sadder than that—because, once lost, they were incapable of restoration, and because not to be dispensed with; blessings in which 'either we must live or have no life:' lights to the darkness of our paths and to the infirmity of our steps—which, once extinguished, never more on this side the gates of Paradise can any man hope to see re-illumined for himself. Amongst these I may mention an intellect, whether powerful or not in itself, at any rate most elaborately cultivated; and, to say the truth, I had little other business before me in this life than to pursue this lofty and delightful task. I may add, as a blessing, not in the same positive sense as that which I have just mentioned, because not of a nature to contribute so hourly to the employment of the thoughts, but yet in this sense equal, that the absence of either would have been an equal affliction,—namely, a conscience void of all offence. It was little indeed that I, drawn by no necessities of situation into temptations of that nature, had done no injury to any man. That was fortunate; but I could not much value myself upon what was so much an accident of my situation. Something, however, I might pretend to beyond this negative merit; for I had originally a benign nature; and, as I advanced in years and thoughtfulness, the gratitude which possessed me for my own exceeding happiness led me to do that by principle and system which I had already done upon blind impulse; and thus upon a double argument I was incapable of turning away from the prayer of the afflicted, whatever had been the sacrifice to myself. Hardly, perhaps, could it have been said in a sufficient sense at that time that I was a religious man: yet, undoubtedly, I had all the foundations within me upon which religion might hereafter have grown. My heart overflowed with thankfulness to Providence: I had a natural tone of unaffected piety; and thus far, at least, I might have been called a religious man, that in the simplicity of truth I could have exclaimed,
'O, Abner, I fear God, and I fear none beside.'
But wherefore seek to delay ascending by a natural climax to that final consummation and perfect crown of my felicity—that almighty blessing which ratified their value to all the rest? Wherefore, oh! wherefore do I shrink in miserable weakness from—what? Is it from reviving, from calling up again into fierce and insufferable light the images and features of a long-buried happiness? That would be a natural shrinking and a reasonable weakness. But how escape from reviving, whether I give it utterance or not, that which is for ever vividly before me? What need to call into artificial light that which, whether sleeping or waking, by night or by day, for eight-and-thirty years has seemed by its miserable splendor to scorch my brain? Wherefore shrink from giving language, simple vocal utterance, to that burden of anguish which by so long an endurance has lost no atom of its weight, nor can gain any most surely by the loudest publication? Need there can be none, after this, to say that the priceless blessing, which I have left to the final place in this ascending review, was the companion of my life—my darling and youthful wife. Oh! dovelike woman! fated in an hour the most defenceless to meet with the ravening vulture,—lamb fallen amongst wolves,—trembling—fluttering fawn, whose path was inevitably to be crossed by the bloody tiger;—angel, whose most innocent heart fitted thee for too early a flight from this impure planet; if indeed it were a necessity that thou shouldst find no rest for thy footing except amidst thy native heavens, if indeed to leave what was not worthy of thee were a destiny not to be evaded—a summons not to be put by,—yet why, why, again and again I demand—why was it also necessary that this, thy departure, so full of wo to me, should also to thyself be heralded by the pangs of martyrdom? Sainted love, if, like the ancient children of the Hebrews, like Meshech and Abednego, thou wert called by divine command, whilst yet almost a child, to walk, and to walk alone, through the fiery furnace,—wherefore then couldst not thou, like that Meshech and that Abednego, walk unsinged by the dreadful torment, and come forth unharmed? Why, if the sacrifice were to be total, was it necessary to reach it by so dire a struggle? and if the cup, the bitter cup, of final separation from those that were the light of thy eyes and the pulse of thy heart might not be put aside,— yet wherefore was it that thou mightest not drink it up in the natural peace which belongs to a sinless heart?
But these are murmurings, you will say, rebellious murmurings against the proclamations of God. Not so: I have long since submitted myself, resigned myself, nay, even reconciled myself, perhaps, to the great wreck of my life, in so far as it was the will of God, and according to the weakness of my imperfect nature. But my wrath still rises, like a towering flame, against all the earthly instruments of this ruin; I am still at times as unresigned as ever to this tragedy, in so far as it was the work of human malice. Vengeance, as a mission for me, as a task for my hands in particular, is no longer possible; the thunderbolts of retribution have been long since launched by other hands; and yet still it happens that at times I do—I must—I shall perhaps to the hour of death, rise in maniac fury, and seek, in the very impotence of vindictive madness, groping as it were in blindness of heart, for that tiger from hell-gates that tore away my darling from my heart. Let me pause, and interrupt this painful strain, to say a word or two upon what she was—and how far worthy of a love more honorable to her (that was possible) and deeper (but that was not possible) than mine. When first I saw her, she—my Agnes—was merely a child, not much (if anything) above sixteen. But, as in perfect womanhood she retained a most childlike expression of countenance, so even then in absolute childhood she put forward the blossoms and the dignity of a woman. Never yet did my eye light upon creature that was born of woman, nor could it enter my heart to conceive one, possessing a figure more matchless in its proportions, more statuesque, and more deliberately and advisedly to be characterized by no adequate word but the word magnificent, (a word too often and lightly abused.) In reality, speaking of women, I have seen many beautiful figures, but hardly one except Agnes that could, without hyperbole, be styled truly and memorably magnificent. Though in the first order of tall women, yet, being full in person, and with a symmetry that was absolutely faultless, she seemed to the random sight as little above the ordinary height. Possibly from the dignity of her person, assisted by the dignity of her movements, a stranger would have been disposed to call her at a distance a woman of commanding presence; but never, after he had approached near enough to behold her face. Every thought of artifice, of practised effect, or of haughty pretension, fled before the childlike innocence, the sweet feminine timidity, and the more than cherub loveliness of that countenance, which yet in its lineaments was noble, whilst its expression was purely gentle and confiding. A shade of pensiveness there was about her; but that was in her manners, scarcely ever in her features; and the exquisite fairness of her complexion, enriched by the very sweetest and most delicate bloom that ever I have beheld, should rather have allied it to a tone of cheerfulness. Looking at this noble creature, as I first looked at her, when yet upon the early threshold of womanhood
'With household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin liberty'
you might have supposed her some Hebe or young Aurora of the dawn. When you saw only her superb figure, and its promise of womanly development, with the measured dignity of her step, you might for a moment have fancied her some imperial Medea of the Athenian stage—some Volumnia from Rome,
'Or ruling bandit's wife amidst the Grecian isles.'
But catch one glance from her angelic countenance—and then combining the face and the person, you would have dismissed all such fancies, and have pronounced her a Pandora or an Eve, expressly accomplished and held forth by nature as an exemplary model or ideal pattern for the future female sex:—
'A perfect woman, nobly plann'd,
To warm, to comfort, to command:
And yet a spirit too, and bright
With something of an angel light.'
To this superb young woman, such as I have here sketched her, I surrendered my heart for ever, almost from my first opportunity of seeing her: for so natural and without disguise was her character, and so winning the simplicity of her manners, due in part to her own native dignity of mind, and in part to the deep solitude in which she had been reared, that little penetration was required to put me in possession of all her thoughts; and to win her love, not very much more than to let her see, as see she could not avoid, in connection with that chivalrous homage which at any rate was due to her sex and her sexual perfections, a love for herself on my part, which was in its nature as exalted a passion and as profoundly rooted as any merely human affection can ever yet have been.
On the seventeenth birthday of Agnes we were married. Oh! calendar of everlasting months—months that, like the mighty rivers, shall flow on for ever, immortal as thou, Nile, or Danube, Euphrates, or St. Lawrence! and ye, summer and winter, day and night, wherefore do you bring round continually your signs, and seasons, and revolving hours, that still point and barb the anguish of local recollections, telling me of this and that celestial morning that never shall return, and of too blessed expectations, travelling like yourselves through a heavenly zodiac of changes, till at once and for ever they sank into the grave! Often do I think of seeking for some quiet cell either in the Tropics or in Arctic latitudes, where the changes of the year, and the external signs corresponding to them, express themselves by no features like those in which the same seasons are invested under our temperate climes: so that, if knowing, we cannot at least feel the identity of their revolutions. We were married, I have said, on the birthday—the seventeenth birthday—of Agnes; and pretty nearly on her eighteenth it was that she placed me at the summit of my happiness, whilst for herself she thus completed the circle of her relations to this life's duties, by presenting me with a son. Of this child, knowing how wearisome to strangers is the fond exultation of parents, I shall simply say, that he inherited his mother's beauty; the same touching loveliness and innocence of expression, the same chiselled nose, mouth, and chin, the same exquisite auburn hair. In many other features, not of person merely, but also of mind and manners, as they gradually began to open before me, this child deepened my love to him by recalling the image of his mother; and what other image was there that I so much wished to keep before me, whether waking or asleep? At the time to which I am now coming but too rapidly, this child, still our only one, and unusually premature, was within four months of completing his third year; consequently Agnes was at that time in her twenty-first year; and I may here add, with respect to myself, that I was in my twenty-sixth.
But, before I come to that period of wo, let me say one word on the temper of mind which so fluent and serene a current of prosperity may be thought to have generated. Too common a course I know it is, when the stream of life flows with absolute tranquillity, and ruffled by no menace of a breeze—the azure overhead never dimmed by a passing cloud, that in such circumstances the blood stagnates: life, from excess and plethora of sweets, becomes insipid: the spirit of action droops: and it is oftentimes found at such seasons that slight annoyances and molestations, or even misfortunes in a lower key, are not wholly undesirable, as means of stimulating the lazy energies, and disturbing a slumber which is, or soon will be, morbid in its character. I have known myself cases not a few, where, by the very nicest gradations, and by steps too silent and insensible for daily notice, the utmost harmony and reciprocal love had shaded down into fretfulness and petulance, purely from too easy a life, and because all nobler agitations that might have ruffled the sensations occasionally, and all distresses even on the narrowest scale that might have re-awakened the solicitudes of love, by opening necessities for sympathy, for counsel, or for mutual aid, had been shut out by foresight too elaborate, or by prosperity too cloying. But all this, had it otherwise been possible with my particular mind, and at my early age, was utterly precluded by one remarkable peculiarity in my temper. Whether it were that I derived from nature some jealousy and suspicion of all happiness which seems too perfect and unalloyed—[a spirit of restless distrust, which in ancient times often led men to throw valuable gems into the sea, in the hope of thus propitiating the dire deity of misfortune, by voluntarily breaking the fearful chain of prosperity, and led some of them to weep and groan when the gems thus sacrificed were afterwards brought back to their hand by simple fishermen, who had recovered them in the intestines of fishes—a portentous omen, which was interpreted into a sorrowful indication that the deity thus answered the propitiatory appeal, and made solemn proclamation that he had rejected it]— whether, I say, it were this spirit of jealousy awaked in me by too steady and too profound a felicity—or whether it were that great overthrows and calamities have some mysterious power to send forward a dim misgiving of their advancing footsteps, and really and indeed,
'That in to-day already walks to-morrow;'
or whether it were partly, as I have already put the case in my first supposition, a natural instinct of distrust, but irritated and enlivened by a particular shock of superstitious alarm; which, or whether any of these causes it were that kept me apprehensive, and on the watch for disastrous change, I will not here undertake to determine. Too certain it is that I was so. I never ridded myself of an over-mastering and brooding sense, shadowy and vague, a dim abiding feeling (that sometimes was and sometimes was not exalted into a conscious presentiment) of some great calamity travelling towards me; not perhaps immediately impending—perhaps even at a great distance; but already—dating from some secret hour—already in motion upon some remote line of approach. This feeling I could not assuage by sharing it with Agnes. No motive could be strong enough for persuading me to communicate so gloomy a thought with one who, considering her extreme healthiness, was but too remarkably prone to pensive, if not to sorrowful, contemplations. And thus the obligation which I felt to silence and reserve, strengthened the morbid impression I had received; whilst the remarkable incident I have adverted to served powerfully to rivet the superstitious chain which was continually gathering round me. The incident was this—and before I repeat it, let me pledge my word of honor, that I report to you the bare facts of the case, without exaggeration, and in the simplicity of truth:—There was at that time resident in the great city, which is the scene of my narrative, a woman, from some part of Hungary, who pretended to the gift of looking into futurity. She had made herself known advantageously in several of the greatest cities of Europe, under the designation of the Hungarian Prophetess; and very extraordinary instances were cited amongst the highest circles of her success in the art which she professed. So ample were the pecuniary tributes which she levied upon the hopes and the fears, or the simple curiosity of the aristocracy, that she was thus able to display not unfrequently a disinterestedness and a generosity, which seemed native to her disposition, amongst the humbler classes of her applicants; for she rejected no addresses that were made to her, provided only they were not expressed in levity or scorn, but with sincerity, and in a spirit of confiding respect. It happened, on one occasion, when a nursery-servant of ours was waiting in her anteroom for the purpose of taking her turn in consulting the prophetess professionally, that she had witnessed a scene of consternation and unaffected maternal grief in this Hungarian lady upon the sudden seizure of her son, a child of four or five years old, by a spasmodic inflammation of the throat (since called croup) peculiar to children, and in those days not very well understood by medical men. The poor Hungarian, who had lived chiefly in warm, or at least not damp, climates, and had never so much as heard of this complaint, was almost wild with alarm at the rapid increase of the symptoms which attend the paroxysms, and especially of that loud and distressing sound which marks the impeded respiration. Great, therefore, was her joy and gratitude on finding from our servant that she had herself been in attendance more than once upon cases of the same nature, but very much more violent,—and that, consequently, she was well qualified to suggest and to superintend all the measures of instant necessity, such as the hot-bath, the peculiar medicines, &c., which are almost sure of success when applied in an early stage. Staying to give her assistance until a considerable improvement had taken place in the child, our servant then hurried home to her mistress. Agnes, it may be imagined, dispatched her back with such further and more precise directions as in a very short time availed to re-establish the child in convalescence. These practical services, and the messages of maternal sympathy repeatedly conveyed from Agnes, had completely won the heart of the grateful Hungarian, and she announced her intention of calling with her little boy, to make her personal acknowledgments for the kindness which had been shown to her. She did so, and we were as much impressed by the sultana-like style of her Oriental beauty, as she, on her part, was touched and captivated by the youthful loveliness of my angelic wife. After sitting for above an hour, during which time she talked with a simplicity and good feeling that struck us as remarkable in a person professing an art usually connected with so much of conscious fraud, she rose to take her leave. I must mention that she had previously had our little boy sitting on her knee, and had at intervals thrown a hasty glance upon the palms of his hands. On parting, Agnes, with her usual frankness, held out her hand. The Hungarian took it with an air of sad solemnity, pressed it fervently, and said:—'Lady, it is my part in this life to look behind the curtain of fate; and oftentimes I see such sights in futurity—some near, some far off—as willingly I would not see. For you, young and charming lady, looking like that angel which you are, no destiny can be equal to your deserts. Yet sometimes, true it is, God sees not as man sees; and he ordains, after his unfathomable counsels, to the heavenly-minded a portion in heaven, and to the children whom he loves a rest and a haven not built with hands. Something that I have seen dimly warns me to look no farther. Yet, if you desire it, I will do my office, and I will read for you with truth the lines of fate as they are written upon your hands.' Agnes was a little startled, or even shocked, by this solemn address; but, in a minute or so, a mixed feeling—one half of which was curiosity, and the other half a light-hearted mockery of her own mysterious awe in the presence of what she had been taught to view as either fraud or insanity—prompted her playfully to insist upon the fullest application of the Hungarian's art to her own case; nay, she would have the hands of our little Francis read and interpreted as well as her own, and she desired to hear the full professional judgment delivered without suppression or softening of its harshest awards. She laughed whilst she said all this; but she also trembled a little. The Hungarian first took the hand of our young child, and perused it with a long and steady scrutiny. She said nothing, but sighed heavily as she resigned it. She then took the hand of Agnes—looked bewildered and aghast—then gazed piteously from Agnes to her child—and at last, bursting into tears, began to move steadily out of the room. I followed her hastily, and remonstrated upon this conduct, by pointing her attention to the obvious truth—that these mysterious suppressions and insinuations, which left all shadowy and indistinct, were far more alarming than the most definite denunciations. Her answer yet rings in my ear:—'Why should I make myself odious to you and to your innocent wife? Messenger of evil I am, and have been to many; but evil I will not prophecy to her. Watch and pray! Much may be done by effectual prayer. Human means, fleshly arms, are vain. There is an enemy in the house of life,' [here she quitted her palmistry for the language of astrology;] 'there is a frightful danger at hand, both for your wife and your child. Already on that dark ocean, over which we are all sailing, I can see dimly the point at which the enemy's course shall cross your wife's. There is but little interval remaining—not many hours. All is finished; all is accomplished; and already he is almost up with the darlings of your heart. Be vigilant, be vigilant, and yet look not to yourself, but to Heaven, for deliverance.'
This woman was not an impostor: she spoke and uttered her oracles under a wild sense of possession by some superior being, and of mystic compulsion to say what she would have willingly left unsaid; and never yet, before or since, have I seen the light of sadness settle with so solemn an expression into human eyes as when she dropped my wife's hand, and refused to deliver that burden of prophetic wo with which she believed herself to be inspired.
The prophetess departed; and what mood of mind did she leave behind her in Agnes and myself? Naturally there was a little drooping of spirits at first; the solemnity and the heart-felt sincerity of fear and grief which marked her demeanor, made it impossible, at the moment when we were just fresh from their natural influences, that we should recoil into our ordinary spirits. But with the inevitable elasticity of youth and youthful gaiety we soon did so; we could not attempt to persuade ourselves that there had been any conscious fraud or any attempt at scenical effect in the Hungarian's conduct. She had no motive for deceiving us; she had refused all offerings of money, and her whole visit had evidently been made under an overflow of the most grateful feelings for the attentions shown to her child. We acquitted her, therefore, of sinister intentions; and with our feelings of jealousy, feelings in which we had been educated, towards everything that tended to superstition, we soon agreed to think her some gentle maniac or sad enthusiast, suffering under some form of morbid melancholy. Forty-eight hours, with two nights' sleep, sufficed to restore the wonted equilibrium of our spirits; and that interval brought us onwards to the 6th of April—the day on which, as I have already said, my story properly commences.
On that day, on that lovely 6th of April, such as I have described it, that 6th of April, about nine o'clock in the morning, we were seated at breakfast near the open window—we, that is, Agnes, myself, and little Francis; the freshness of morning spirits rested upon us; the golden light of the morning sun illuminated the room; incense was floating through the air from the gorgeous flowers within and without the house; there in youthful happiness we sat gathered together, a family of love, and there we never sat again. Never again were we three gathered together, nor ever shall be, so long as the sun and its golden light— the morning and the evening—the earth and its flowers endure.
Often have I occupied myself in recalling every circumstance the most trivial of this the final morning of what merits to be called my life. Eleven o'clock, I remember, was striking when Agnes came into my study, and said that she would go into the city, (for we lived in a quite rural suburb,) that she would execute some trifling commissions which she had received from a friend in the country, and would be at home again between one and two for a stroll which we had agreed to take in the neighboring meadows. About twenty minutes after this she again came into my study dressed for going abroad; for such was my admiration of her, that I had a fancy—fancy it must have been, and yet still I felt it to be real—that under every change she looked best; if she put on a shawl, then a shawl became the most feminine of ornaments; if she laid aside her shawl and her bonnet, then how nymph-like she seemed in her undisguised and unadorned beauty! Full-dress seemed for the time to be best, as bringing forward into relief the splendor of her person, and allowing the exposure of her arms; a simple morning-dress, again, seemed better still, as fitted to call out the childlike innocence of her face, by confining the attention to that. But all these are feelings of fond and blind affection, hanging with rapture over the object of something too like idolatry. God knows, if that be a sin, I was but too profound a sinner; yet sin it never was, sin it could not be, to adore a beauty such as thine, my Agnes. Neither was it her beauty by itself, and that only, which I sought at such times to admire; there was a peculiar sort of double relation in which she stood at moments of pleasurable expectation and excitement, since our little Francis had become of an age to join our party, which made some aspects of her character trebly interesting. She was a wife—and wife to one whom she looked up to as her superior in understanding and in knowledge of the world, whom, therefore, she leaned to for protection. On the other hand, she was also a mother. Whilst, therefore, to her child she supported the matronly part of guide, and the air of an experienced person; to me she wore, ingenuously and without disguise, the part of a child herself, with all the giddy hopes and unchastised imaginings of that buoyant age. This double character, one aspect of which looks towards her husband and one to her children, sits most gracefully upon many a young wife whose heart is pure and innocent; and the collision between the two separate parts imposed by duty on the one hand, by extreme youth on the other, the one telling her that she is a responsible head of a family and the depository of her husband's honor in its tenderest and most vital interests, the other telling her, through the liveliest language of animal sensibility, and through the very pulses of her blood, that she is herself a child; this collision gives an inexpressible charm to the whole demeanor of many a young married woman, making her other fascinations more touching to her husband, and deepening the admiration she excites; and the more so, as it is a collision which cannot exist except among the very innocent. Years, at any rate, will irresistibly remove this peculiar charm, and gradually replace it by the graces of the matronly character. But in Agnes this change had not yet been effected, partly from nature, and partly from the extreme seclusion of her life. Hitherto she still retained the unaffected expression of her childlike nature; and so lovely in my eyes was this perfect exhibition of natural feminine character, that she rarely or never went out alone upon any little errand to town which might require her to rely upon her own good sense and courage, that she did not previously come to exhibit herself before me. Partly this was desired by me in that lover-like feeling of admiration already explained, which leads one to court the sight of a beloved object under every change of dress, and under all effects of novelty. Partly it was the interest I took in that exhibition of sweet timidity, and almost childish apprehensiveness, half disguised or imperfectly acknowledged by herself, which (in the way I have just explained) so touchingly contrasted with (and for that very reason so touchingly drew forth) her matronly character. But I hear some objector say at this point, ought not this very timidity, founded (as in part at least it was) upon inexperience and conscious inability to face the dangers of the world, to have suggested reasons for not leaving her to her own protection? And does it not argue, on my part, an arrogant or too blind a confidence in the durability of my happiness, as though charmed against assaults, and liable to no shocks of sudden revolution? I reply that, from the very constitution of society, and the tone of manners in the city which we inhabited, there seemed to be a moral impossibility that any dangers of consequence should meet her in the course of those brief absences from my protection, which only were possible; that even to herself any dangers, of a nature to be anticipated under the known circumstances of the case, seemed almost imaginary; that even she acknowledged a propriety in being trained, by slight and brief separations from my guardianship, to face more boldly those cases of longer separation and of more absolute consignment to her own resources which circumstances might arise to create necessarily, and perhaps abruptly. And it is evident that, had she been the wife of any man engaged in the duties of a profession, she might have been summoned from the very first, and without the possibility of any such gradual training, to the necessity of relying almost singly upon her own courage and discretion. For the other question, whether I did not depend too blindly and presumptuously upon my good luck in not at least affording her my protection so long as nothing occurred to make it impossible? I may reply, most truly, that all my feelings ran naturally in the very opposite channel. So far from confiding too much in my luck, in the present instance I was engaged in a task of writing upon some points of business which could not admit of further delay; but now, and at all times, I had a secret aversion to seeing so gentle a creature thrown even for an hour upon her own resources, though in situations which scarcely seemed to admit of any occasion for taxing those resources; and often I have felt anger towards myself for what appeared to be an irrational or effeminate timidity, and have struggled with my own mind upon occasions like the present, when I knew that I could not have acknowledged my tremors to a friend without something like shame, and a fear to excite his ridicule. No; if in anything I ran into excess, it was in this very point of anxiety as to all that regarded my wife's security. Her good sense, her prudence, her courage, (for courage she had in the midst of her timidity,) her dignity of manner, the more impressive from the childlike character of her countenance, all should have combined to reassure me, and yet they did not. I was still anxious for her safety to an irrational extent; and to sum up the whole in a most weighty line of Shakspeare, I lived under the constant presence of a feeling which only that great observer of human nature (so far as I am aware) has ever noticed, viz., that merely the excess of my happiness made me jealous of its ability to last, and in that extent less capable of enjoying it; that in fact the prelibation of my tears, as a homage to its fragility, was drawn forth by my very sense that my felicity was too exquisite; or, in the words of the great master
'I wept to have' [absolutely, by anticipation, shed tears in possessing] 'what I so feared to lose.'
Thus end my explanations, and I now pursue my narrative: Agnes, as I have said, came into my room again before leaving the house—we conversed for five minutes—we parted—she went out—her last words being that she would return at half-past one o'clock; and not long after that time, if ever mimic bells—bells of rejoicing, or bells of mourning, are heard in desert spaces of the air, and (as some have said) in unreal worlds, that mock our own, and repeat, for ridicule, the vain and unprofitable motions of man, then too surely, about this hour, began to toll the funeral knell of my earthly happiness—its final hour had sounded.
* * * * *
One o'clock had arrived; fifteen minutes after, I strolled into the garden, and began to look over the little garden-gate in expectation of every moment descrying Agnes in the distance. Half an hour passed, and for ten minutes more I was tolerably quiet. From this time till half- past two I became constantly more agitated—agitated, perhaps, is too strong a word—but I was restless and anxious beyond what I should have chosen to acknowledge. Still I kept arguing, What is half an hour? what is an hour? A thousand things might have occurred to cause that delay, without needing to suppose any accident; or, if an accident, why not a very trifling one? She may have slightly hurt her foot—she may have slightly sprained her ankle. 'Oh, doubtless,' I exclaimed to myself, 'it will be a mere trifle, or perhaps nothing at all.' But I remember that, even whilst I was saying this, I took my hat and walked with nervous haste into the little quiet lane upon which our garden-gate opened. The lane led by a few turnings, and after a course of about five hundred yards, into a broad high-road, which even at that day had begun to assume the character of a street, and allowed an unobstructed range of view in the direction of the city for at least a mile. Here I stationed myself, for the air was so clear that I could distinguish dress and figure to a much greater distance than usual. Even on such a day, however, the remote distance was hazy and indistinct, and at any other season I should have been diverted with the various mistakes I made. From occasional combinations of color, modified by light and shade, and of course powerfully assisted by the creative state of the eye under this nervous apprehensiveness, I continued to shape into images of Agnes forms without end, that upon nearer approach presented the most grotesque contrasts to her impressive appearance. But I had ceased even to comprehend the ludicrous; my agitation was now so overruling and engrossing that I lost even my intellectual sense of it; and now first I understood practically and feelingly the anguish of hope alternating with disappointment, as it may be supposed to act upon the poor shipwrecked seaman, alone and upon a desolate coast, straining his sight for ever to the fickle element which has betrayed him, but which only can deliver him, and with his eyes still tracing in the far distance,
'Ships, dim-discover'd, dropping from the clouds,'—
which a brief interval of suspense still for ever disperses into hollow pageants of air or vapor. One deception melted away only to be succeeded by another; still I fancied that at last to a certainty I could descry the tall figure of Agnes, her gipsy hat, and even the peculiar elegance of her walk. Often I went so far as to laugh at myself, and even to tax my recent fears with unmanliness and effeminacy, on recollecting the audible throbbings of my heart, and the nervous palpitations which had besieged me; but these symptoms, whether effeminate or not, began to come back tumultuously under the gloomy doubts that succeeded almost before I had uttered this self-reproach. Still I found myself mocked and deluded with false hopes; yet still I renewed my quick walk, and the intensity of my watch for that radiant form that was fated never more to be seen returning from the cruel city.
It was nearly half-past three, and therefore close upon two hours beyond the time fixed by Agnes for her return, when I became absolutely incapable of supporting the further torture of suspense, and I suddenly took the resolution of returning home and concerting with my female servants some energetic measures, though what I could hardly say, on behalf of their mistress. On entering the garden-gate I met our little child Francis, who unconsciously inflicted a pang upon me which he neither could have meditated nor have understood. I passed him at his play, perhaps even unaware of his presence, but he recalled me to that perception by crying aloud that he had just seen his mamma.
'When—where?' I asked convulsively.
'Up stairs in her bedroom,' was his instantaneous answer.
His manner was such as forbade me to suppose that he could be joking; and, as it was barely possible (though, for reasons well known to me, in the highest degree improbable) that Agnes might have returned by a by-path, which, leading through a dangerous and disreputable suburb, would not have coincided at any one point with the public road where I had been keeping my station. I sprang forward into the house, up stairs, and in rapid succession into every room where it was likely that she might be found; but everywhere there was a dead silence, disturbed only by myself, for, in my growing confusion of thought, I believe that I rang the bell violently in every room I entered. No such summons, however, was needed, for the servants, two of whom at the least were most faithful creatures, and devotedly attached to their young mistress, stood ready of themselves to come and make inquiries of me as soon as they became aware of the alarming fact, that I had returned without her.
Until this moment, though having some private reasons for surprise that she should have failed to come into the house for a minute or two at the hour prefixed, in order to make some promised domestic arrangements for the day, they had taken it for granted that she must have met with me at some distance from home—and that either the extreme beauty of the day had beguiled her of all petty household recollections, or (as a conjecture more in harmony with past experiences) that my impatience and solicitations had persuaded her to lay aside her own plans for the moment at the risk of some little domestic inconvenience. Now, however, in a single instant vanished every mode of accounting for their mistress's absence; and the consternation of our looks communicated contagiously, by the most unerring of all languages, from each to the other what thoughts were uppermost in our panic-stricken hearts. If to any person it should seem that our alarm was disproportioned to the occasion, and not justified at least by anything as yet made known to us, let that person consider the weight due to the two following facts: First, that from the recency of our settlement in this neighborhood, and from the extreme seclusion of my wife's previous life at a vast distance from the metropolis, she had positively no friends on her list of visitors who resided in this great capital; secondly, and far above all beside, let him remember the awful denunciations, so unexpectedly tallying with this alarming and mysterious absence, of the Hungarian prophetess; these had been slighted—almost dismissed from our thoughts; but now in sudden reaction they came back upon us with a frightful power to lacerate and to sting—the shadowy outline of a spiritual agency, such as that which could at all predict the events, combining in one mysterious effect, with the shadowy outline of those very predictions. The power, that could have predicted, was as dim and as hard to grasp as was the precise nature of the evil that had been predicted.
An icy terror froze my blood at this moment when I looked at the significant glances, too easily understood by me, that were exchanged between the servants. My mouth had been for the last two hours growing more and more parched, so that at present, from mere want of moisture, I could not separate my lips to speak. One of the women saw the vain efforts I was making, and hastily brought me a glass of water. With the first recovery of speech, I asked them what little Francis had meant by saying that he had seen his mother in her bedroom. Their reply was, that they were as much at a loss to discover his meaning as I was; that he had made the same assertion to them, and with so much earnestness, that they had, all in succession, gone up stairs to look for her, and with the fullest expectation of finding her. This was a mystery which remained such to the very last; there was no doubt whatsoever that the child believed himself to have seen his mother; that he could not have seen her in her human bodily presence, there is as little doubt as there is, alas! that in this world he never did see her again. The poor child constantly adhered to his story, and with a circumstantiality far beyond all power of invention that could be presumed in an artless infant. Every attempt at puzzling him or entangling him in contradictions by means of cross-examination was but labor thrown away; though indeed, it is true enough that for those attempts, as will soon be seen, there was but a brief interval allowed.
Not dwelling upon this subject at present, I turned to Hannah—a woman who held the nominal office of cook in our little establishment, but whose real duties had been much more about her mistress's person—and with a searching look of appeal I asked her whether, in this moment of trial, when (as she might see) I was not so perfectly master of myself as perhaps always to depend upon seeing what was best to be done, she would consent to accompany me into the city, and take upon herself those obvious considerations of policy or prudence which might but too easily escape my mind, darkened, and likely to be darkened, as to its power of discernment by the hurricane of affliction now too probably at hand. She answered my appeal with the fervor I expected from what I had already known of her character. She was a woman of a strong, fiery, perhaps I might say of heroic mind, supported by a courage that was absolutely indomitable, and by a strength of bodily frame very unusual in a woman, and beyond the promise even of her person. She had suffered as deep a wrench in her own affections as a human being can suffer; she had lost her one sole child, a fair-haired boy of most striking beauty and interesting disposition, at the age of seventeen, and by the worst of all possible fates; he lived (as we did at that time) in a large commercial city overflowing with profligacy, and with temptations of every order; he had been led astray; culpable he had been, but by very much the least culpable of the set into which accident had thrown him, as regarded acts and probable intentions; and as regarded palliations from childish years, from total inexperience, or any other alleviating circumstances that could be urged, having everything to plead—and of all his accomplices the only one who had anything to plead. Interest, however, he had little or none; and whilst some hoary villains of the party, who happened to be more powerfully befriended, were finally allowed to escape with a punishment little more than nominal, he and two others were selected as sacrifices to the offended laws. They suffered capitally. All three behaved well; but the poor boy in particular, with a courage, a resignation, and a meekness, so distinguished and beyond his years as to attract the admiration and the liveliest sympathy of the public universally. If strangers could feel in that way, if the mere hardened executioner could be melted at the final scene,—it may be judged to what a fierce and terrific height would ascend the affliction of a doating mother, constitutionally too fervid in her affections. I have heard an official person declare, that the spectacle of her desolation and frantic anguish was the most frightful thing he had ever witnessed, and so harrowing to the feelings, that all who could by their rank venture upon such an irregularity, absented themselves during the critical period from the office which corresponded with the government; for, as I have said, the affair took place in a large provincial city, at a great distance from the capital. All who knew this woman, or who were witnesses to the alteration which one fortnight had wrought in her person as well as her demeanor, fancied it impossible that she could continue to live; or that, if she did, it must be through the giving way of her reason. They proved, however, to be mistaken; or, at least, if (as some thought) her reason did suffer in some degree, this result showed itself in the inequality of her temper, in moody fits of abstraction, and the morbid energy of her manner at times under the absence of all adequate external excitement, rather than in any positive and apparent hallucinations of thought. The charm which had mainly carried off the instant danger to her faculties, was doubtless the intense sympathy which she met with. And in these offices of consolation my wife stood foremost. For, and that was fortunate, she had found herself able, without violence to her own sincerest opinions in the case, to offer precisely that form of sympathy which was most soothing to the angry irritation of the poor mother; not only had she shown a direct interest in the boy, and not a mere interest of reflection from that which she took in the mother, and had expressed it by visits to his dungeon, and by every sort of attention to his comforts which his case called for, or the prison regulations allowed; not only had she wept with the distracted woman as if for a brother of her own; but, which went farther than all the rest in softening the mother's heart, she had loudly and indignantly proclaimed her belief in the boy's innocence, and in the same tone her sense of the crying injustice committed as to the selection of the victims, and the proportion of the punishment awarded. Others, in the language of a great poet,
'Had pitied her, and not her grief;'
they had either not been able to see, or, from carelessness, had neglected to see, any peculiar wrong done to her in the matter which occasioned her grief,—but had simply felt compassion for her as for one summoned, in a regular course of providential and human dispensation, to face an affliction, heavy in itself, but not heavy from any special defect of equity. Consequently their very sympathy, being so much built upon the assumption that an only child had offended to the extent implied in his sentence, oftentimes clothed itself in expressions which she felt to be not consolations but insults, and, in fact, so many justifications of those whom it relieved her overcharged heart to regard as the very worst of enemies. Agnes, on the other hand, took the very same view of the case as herself; and, though otherwise the gentlest of all gentle creatures, yet here, from the generous fervor of her reverence for justice, and her abhorrence of oppression, she gave herself no trouble to moderate the energy of her language: nor did I, on my part, feeling that substantially she was in the right, think it of importance to dispute about the exact degrees of the wrong done or the indignation due to it. In this way it happened naturally enough that at one and the same time, though little contemplating either of these results, Agnes had done a prodigious service to the poor desolate mother by breaking the force of her misery, as well as by arming the active agencies of indignation against the depressing ones of solitary grief, and for herself had won a most grateful and devoted friend, who would have gone through fire and water to serve her, and was thenceforwards most anxious for some opportunity to testify how deep had been her sense of the goodness shown to her by her benign young mistress, and how incapable of suffering abatement by time. It remains to add, which I have slightly noticed before, that this woman was of unusual personal strength: her bodily frame matched with her intellectual: and I notice this now with the more emphasis, because I am coming rapidly upon ground where it will be seen that this one qualification was of more summary importance to us—did us more 'yeoman's service' at a crisis the most awful—than other qualities of greater name and pretension. Hannah was this woman's Christian name; and her name and her memory are to me amongst the most hallowed of my earthly recollections.
One of her two fellow-servants, known technically amongst us as the 'parlor maid,' was also, but not equally, attached to her mistress; and merely because her nature, less powerfully formed and endowed, did not allow her to entertain or to comprehend any service equally fervid of passion or of impassioned action. She, however, was good, affectionate, and worthy to be trusted. But a third there was, a nursery maid, and therefore more naturally and more immediately standing within the confidence of her mistress—her I could not trust: her I suspected. But of that hereafter. Meantime, Hannah, she upon whom I leaned as upon a staff in all which respected her mistress, ran up stairs, after I had spoken and received her answer, in order hastily to dress and prepare herself for going out along with me to the city. I did not ask her to be quick in her movements: I knew there was no need: and, whilst she was absent, I took up, in one of my fretful movements of nervousness, a book which was lying upon a side-table: the book fell open of itself at a particular page; and in that, perhaps, there was nothing extraordinary, for it was a little portable edition of Paradise Lost; and the page was one which I must naturally have turned to many a time: for to Agnes I had read all the great masters of literature, especially those of modern times; so that few people knew the high classics more familiarly: and as to the passage in question, from its divine beauty I had read it aloud to her, perhaps, on fifty separate occasions. All this I mention to take away any appearance of a vulgar attempt to create omens; but still, in the very act of confessing the simple truth, and thus weakening the marvellous character of the anecdote, I must notice it as a strange instance of the 'Sortes Miltonianæ,'—that precisely at such a moment as this I should find thrown in my way, should feel tempted to take up, and should open, a volume containing such a passage as the following: and observe, moreover, that although the volume, once being taken up, would naturally open where it had been most frequently read, there were, however, many passages which had been read as frequently—or more so. The particular passage upon which I opened at this moment was that most beautiful one in which the fatal morning separation is described between Adam and his bride—that separation so pregnant with wo, which eventually proved the occasion of the mortal transgression—the last scene between our first parents at which both were innocent and both were happy—although the superior intellect already felt, and, in the slight altercation preceding this separation, had already expressed a dim misgiving of some coming change: these are the words, and in depth of pathos they have rarely been approached:—
'Oft he to her his charge of quick return
Repeated; she to him as oft engag'd
To be returned by noon amid the bow'r,